Big Easy Living: A Local’s Guide to the Charm and Culture of New Orleans
Big Easy Living: A Local's Guide to the Charm and Culture of New Orleans - Immerse Yourself in the French Quarter
No trip to New Orleans is complete without spending time immersed in the lively French Quarter. This iconic neighborhood is the vibrant heart of the city, with colorful architecture, jazz music drifting through the streets, and the intoxicating smells of Creole cuisine filling the air.
Wandering through the French Quarter is like stepping back in time. Many of the buildings date back to the 18th century when New Orleans was under French rule. Take a stroll down Royal Street to admire the cast-iron balconies, brightly painted facades and intricate ironwork that epitomize the neighborhood's unique architecture. Pop into one of the many art galleries and antique shops housed in these historic buildings.
Be sure to stop for a coffee and beignet at Café Du Monde, an iconic French Quarter institution since 1862. There's no better place to people watch and soak up the ambiance. Nearby Jackson Square, the historic heart of the Quarter, is always bustling with street performers, artists and tourists.
At night, listen for live jazz spilling onto the streets from iconic venues like Preservation Hall and The Spotted Cat. Nothing embodies the spirit of New Orleans like swaying to smooth jazz played by talented local musicians. Grab a Sazerac cocktail and join in the lively street party on Bourbon Street, or find a more low-key local hangout on Frenchmen Street.
No matter where you explore in the French Quarter, you'll discover celebrations happening day and night. Second line parades wind through the streets, often led by a local high school brass band. Pop-up jazz funerals commemorate loved ones with mournful dirges that transition into upbeat Dixieland jazz. Locals and visitors alike join in, dancing behind the procession.
What else is in this post?
- Big Easy Living: A Local's Guide to the Charm and Culture of New Orleans - Immerse Yourself in the French Quarter
- Big Easy Living: A Local's Guide to the Charm and Culture of New Orleans - Dance Through the Streets at Mardi Gras
- Big Easy Living: A Local's Guide to the Charm and Culture of New Orleans - Indulge in Cajun and Creole Cuisine
- Big Easy Living: A Local's Guide to the Charm and Culture of New Orleans - Wander Through the Garden District's Antebellum Mansions
- Big Easy Living: A Local's Guide to the Charm and Culture of New Orleans - Listen to Live Jazz on Frenchmen Street
- Big Easy Living: A Local's Guide to the Charm and Culture of New Orleans - Tour the Historic Plantations Along the River Road
- Big Easy Living: A Local's Guide to the Charm and Culture of New Orleans - Experience the Voodoo Magic of Marie Laveau
- Big Easy Living: A Local's Guide to the Charm and Culture of New Orleans - Cruise the Mississippi River on a Paddlewheeler
Big Easy Living: A Local's Guide to the Charm and Culture of New Orleans - Dance Through the Streets at Mardi Gras
Each year as winter draws to a close, New Orleans erupts into its biggest and boldest celebration - Mardi Gras. For two weeks leading up to Fat Tuesday, parades wind through the streets, dazzling floats toss beads and trinkets to cheering crowds, and revelers party every night. While images of drunken debauchery often come to mind when thinking of Mardi Gras, joining in the parades and pageantry can be an exhilarating cultural experience.
Arrive early to claim a spot along the main parade routes like St. Charles Avenue or Canal Street. Bring a ladder or find balcony access for the best overhead views. As each themed parade approaches blaring brass bands, riders on elaborate floats will toss beads, medallions, stuffed animals and more to eagerly waiting hands below. Shout “throw me something mister!” to get their attention. Parents often bring nets attached to poles to catch goodies for their kids.
Once the parade passes, join the second line dance troupes that follow behind, winding through streets while jazz bands keep the party going. Bounce to the beat of a snare drum and sway your hips to the wail of a trumpet. Let loose and enjoy marching alongside costumed revelers under sunny skies or beneath strings of purple, gold and green Mardi Gras lights.
Attend one of the dozens of lavish Mardi Gras balls held around the city, or find a local neighborhood bar hosting a lively Lundi Gras party the night before Fat Tuesday. Here king cakes overflow with sugary icing, masks and jesters abound, and strangers become quick friends over Abita beers.
On Mardi Gras day, make your way to the French Quarter to see elaborate flambeaux-lit parades like Rex or Zulu wind through narrow streets. Watch for chaos to ensue when riders intentionally smash low-hanging balconies to reach outstretched hands. As afternoon turns to evening, raucous crowds take over Bourbon Street for a final night of revelry before Lent begins at midnight.
Big Easy Living: A Local's Guide to the Charm and Culture of New Orleans - Indulge in Cajun and Creole Cuisine
No visit to the Big Easy is complete without indulging in mouthwatering Cajun and Creole cuisine. New Orleans’ culinary scene is a delicious melting pot reflecting the city’s French, Spanish, African, and Native American influences. Dig into jambalaya, gumbo, po’ boys, muffulettas, and beignets from local joints favored by locals.
Start your culinary adventure at the century-old Central Grocery, where the muffuletta sandwich originated. This Sicilian-style feast stacks layers of ham, salami, mortadella, and provolone cheese between round sesame-crusted loaves. Grab one for a picnic beside the mighty Mississippi River, or bring it back to your hotel room if you’re staying in the French Quarter. The aroma alone is heavenly!
Next, make your way to Mother’s Restaurant for a true taste of Cajun cuisine. Mother’s does homestyle cooking right with favorites like crawfish etouffee, red beans and rice, fried chicken, and jambalaya with locally sourced ingredients. Don’t skip dessert - the bread pudding with whiskey sauce is decadent!
After satisfying your savory cravings, head to Café Du Monde in the French Market for a sweet beignet treat. Take a seat at one of their open-air tables and watch powdered sugar dusted squares arrive piping hot. Dip the holeless donuts into chicory cafe au lait between snapping Instagram worthy pics.
If you still have room, meander down to Willie Mae’s Scotch House in the Tremé neighborhood. Willie Mae Seaton has been cooking up soulful fried chicken for over 50 years! Her great-granddaughter now runs the James Beard Award winning joint, serving crunchy, juicy fried chicken, butter beans, and creamy mac ‘n cheese. You’ll be glad you made the pilgrimage uptown.
Finally, cool off with a refreshing snowball from Plum Street Snoballs on Carrollton Avenue. Pick your favorite syrup flavors like wedding cake or satsuma and watch as they’re poured over shaved ice. It’s the ideal treat after an indulgent food tour!
Big Easy Living: A Local's Guide to the Charm and Culture of New Orleans - Wander Through the Garden District's Antebellum Mansions
Just upriver from the French Quarter lies the elegant Garden District, home to some of the finest examples of 19th century architecture in the South. Wandering beneath sprawling live oaks draped in Spanish moss, you’ll discover the ornate antebellum mansions of New Orleans’ most affluent citizens before the Civil War.
Stroll down Magazine Street to take in the historic homes, many now housing quaint shops, art galleries, and restaurants. Pop into The Irish House pub, housed in an 1884 double-gallery mansion, and sip a Guinness on the covered patio. Further along, peek inside Stein’s Deli for a glimpse of the restored pressed tin ceilings from 1899. Grab an overstuffed po’boy for lunch on a garden bench outside.
Venture over to First Street to view the stately Greek Revival mansions built as opulent single family homes by wealthy American settlers in the early 1800s. Note the imposing columns and symmetrical layouts common in this neoclassical style. The Musson-Bell House at 1138 First Street stuns with its intact cast iron cornstalk fence circling the perimeter.
Nearby at 2605 Prytania Street rises the former home of Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, distinguished by grand Corinthian columns. Though privatized, passersby can still admire the home’s imposing portico designed by architect James Gallier Jr. The residence embodies Gallier’s vision for New Orleans mansions blending Creole cottage influences with American Greek Revival.
For a glimpse inside one of the district’s historic abodes, book a tour at The Parlour at 628 Jackson Avenue. This 1858 Italianate beauty captivates guests with original plaster ceiling medallions, cypress woodwork, and Carrara marble mantles. Sip complimentary chilled absinthe in the decadent parlour room during your visit.
Stroll down Chestnut Street to marvel at the Colonel Short’s Villa, renowned as one of the finest examples of Italianate architecture. Said to be inspired by an Italian villa, the home boasts 10,000 square feet of living space. Look up to admire the ornately cast iron-railed balconies.
Don’t miss Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, just one block away, where elaborate above-ground tombs mark the final resting places of many of the district's former residents. Take a guided tour to hear stories of deadly duels and Voodoo queens while wandering among long rows of aging crypts.
Big Easy Living: A Local's Guide to the Charm and Culture of New Orleans - Listen to Live Jazz on Frenchmen Street
After exploring the iconic sights of the French Quarter, make your way to Frenchmen Street to experience the best live jazz and blues that New Orleans has to offer. This is where locals head when they want great music in an authentic scene.
Wandering down Frenchmen Street in the evenings, you’ll discover the intoxicating sounds of improvised jazz spilling onto the sidewalks from hole-in-the-wall venues barely marked with hand-painted signs. Follow your ears to find intimate shows where talented musicians channel the very soul of the city into their instruments.
Kick off your music tour at The Spotted Cat, a cozy corner bar with weathered brick walls plastered in jazz show posters. Grab a chilled Abita beer and snag a seat near the stage just as the band starts up. Patrons often get swept up in the music, dancing beside cramped wooden tables as a skillful trumpeter belts out solos. Singers may even pull you on stage to join in call-and-response vocals. Soak up the creative spirit in this unpretentious jazz haven.
Further along at Snug Harbor, slide into a red leather booth under photographs of legends like Ellis Marsalis who have graced the intimate venue’s stage since 1961. Shows often sell out weeks in advance, but you may luck into standby seats to catch contemporary jazz greats carrying on the torch. Order the Creole shrimp and corn grits to fuel all that toe-tapping.
Next, head to The Maison for a multi-sensory experience. Sip island-inspired rum cocktails beneath strings of tiny lights on the brandy-hued balcony while acclaimed bassists and percussionists reinvent standards. Later, join the crowd downstairs as dancers shimmy across the tiled dancefloor. The funky brass melodies make it impossible to resist moving to the beat.
If you’re craving some blues, meander down to the 24/7 House of Blues. Local student bands take the stage for free weekday shows. But weekends bring acclaimed acts like blues icon Charlie Musselwhite sharing the mic with up-and-comers during late-night sets. Grab a sazerac and sway along, then dine on Creole favorites like jambalaya pasta and banana foster bread pudding upstairs.
End your night on the beloved patio at The Three Muses. The charming exposed-brick space strung with festive lights has an almost Parisian vibe. Sip a craft cocktail while sax and piano duos perform extended improvisational sets. People often linger for hours, as this place feels like an old friend’s backyard.
Big Easy Living: A Local's Guide to the Charm and Culture of New Orleans - Tour the Historic Plantations Along the River Road
Journey back in time along the Great River Road tracing the Mississippi River north from New Orleans. Here you’ll discover a cluster of opulent plantations offering an unflinching look into the reality of slavery in the American South. Wandering among lush live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, you’ll glimpse the contrasts between the elegant “big houses” where white families lived and the sparse wooden quarters of the enslaved.
Your first stop, just 30 minutes upriver, should be Oak Alley Plantation. This Greek Revival mansion flanked by a breathtaking canopy of 28 oak trees exemplifies the antebellum era. Costumed guides recount stories of the Creole cotton plantation’s former inhabitants, from the Tyler family who erected the imposing columned home to the enslaved forced to work the cane fields. Out back, tour several original slave cabins that housed 6 families each in stark contrast to the 25-foot ceilings and lavish décor of the big house.
Further along River Road lies Whitney Plantation, the first museum dedicated to telling personal narratives of enslaved individuals. Here you’ll find memorials like the Field of Angels honoring 2,200 Louisiana children who died in bonded labour. The museum’s candid focus on slavery’s atrocities stands apart from romanticized Gone with the Wind tropes. Visiting these grounds will leave you solemn yet enlightened.
For a look into the complex ties between enslavers and the enslaved, book a tour at Evergreen Plantation. This idyllic 18-room mansion was once home to the Rachal family, while the adjacent 37 intact cabins housed their 113 slaves. Records here indicate many bondspeople formed families with Rachal’s children. Evergreen sheds light on these complex interracial ties glossed over at many sites.
At Laura Plantation, trace bloodlines from the Villeré family who erected the raised Creole cottage to the skilled West African cooks and midwives they enslaved. Laura now spotlights these influential bondspeople like midwife Mamy Tine and chef Hercules through engaging historical reenactments. This compelling focus on individual life stories brings balance to Laura’s narrative.
End your poignant excursion at Houmas House Plantation and Gardens along the Mississippi’s historic Great River Road. Tour lavish rooms dripping in period antiques within the 1840s Greek Revival Mansion where sugarcane magnates once lived. Linger awhile to stroll through the estate’s spectacular 38 acres of gardens. But don’t overlook the estate’s latent brutality. Peek within the former slave huts to reflect on the disparities in living conditions that made the owners’ opulence possible.
Big Easy Living: A Local's Guide to the Charm and Culture of New Orleans - Experience the Voodoo Magic of Marie Laveau
No visit to New Orleans is complete without delving into the mystical world of voodoo and the legendary Marie Laveau. This notorious Voodoo Queen captivated 19th-century New Orleans with her knowledge of spells, rituals, and healing magic. Traces of her enduring influence continue to permeate the city today.
To immerse yourself in Laveau’s legacy, begin by visiting her grave in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. Here you’ll find her tomb, marked with an ‘X’, often adorned with offerings from spiritual devotees honoring the Voodoo icon. Visitors regularly bring gifts ranging from Mardi Gras beads to half-drunk rum bottles to encourage Laveau’s blessings. Ponder this mysterious figure while meandering past elaborate above-ground crypts, final resting places for many prominent early New Orleanians.
After paying your respects, cross over to the French Quarter’s Bourbon Street to visit Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo. Stepping inside this candlelit emporium feels akin to venturing into the Voodoo Queen’s 19th-century apothecary. You’ll discover glass cases brimming with potions, gris-gris bags, Voodoo dolls, and talismans used in rituals Laveau likely performed just streets away. Chat with the shop owner to learn which charms locals still rely on today to attract love, ward off enemies or reverse bad luck.
While you’re exploring Bourbon Street, don’t miss the Voodoo Museum with its eccentric collection of artifacts and immersive exhibits revealing Voodoo’s true roots and rituals. You’ll gain insight into oft-misunderstood traditions while uncovering stories of the enslaved West Africans from Laveau’s era who preserved these practices to resist oppression. Absorb the tales of healers like Laveau who merged West African spirituality with Catholicism’s saints, seeing power in both.
For a contemporary perspective, venture to the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum, operated by descendants of 19th-century Voodoo practitioners. Here you may interact with working altars or see ceremonies reenacted in the courtyard. Chat with the museum’s Voodoo priestess to expand your awareness of how African diasporic beliefs and reverence for ancestors continue shaping communities today.
If possible, time your trip around Halloween or St. John’s Eve on June 23rd. Locals honor Laveau’s legacy through raucous celebrations on these days. Or inquire with museums about special events like jazz funeral processions or lectures delving into the real Marie Laveau beyond the folklore. Use these immersive experiences to deepen your understanding of the queen whose magic eternally captivates this enchanting city.
Big Easy Living: A Local's Guide to the Charm and Culture of New Orleans - Cruise the Mississippi River on a Paddlewheeler
No visit to the Big Easy is complete without a relaxing riverboat cruise along the mighty Mississippi. Paddle up America’s greatest waterway aboard an old-time paddlewheel steamboat and revel in sweeping views of New Orleans’ skyline.
Stepping aboard one of these stately vessels, you’ll be transported back to the 19th century when paddlewheelers were the beating heart of commerce and transport along the Mississippi. Feel the gentle hum of the massive paddlewheel propelling you upriver as bow waves lap against the boat. Take in the allure of passing plantations and historic forts from the dual-level promenade decks. Sit for a spell on a deck chair beneath the shade of red and white striped awnings and let the slow pace of river life envelop you.
New Orleans offers several paddlewheeler options for scenic cruises along the Lower Mississippi. The iconic Steamboat Natchez, launched in 1975 as a replica of its namesake 1823 predecessor, departs twice daily for sightseeing adventures with live jazz combos serenading guests. The family-owned Creole Queen also runs frequent public cruises during the day and evening with an onboard casino and bar to complement the passing views.
For a more intimate experience, consider a private charter like the Yacht New Orleans. This modern paddlewheeler built in 2003 accommodates just 150 for exclusive wedding events, corporate gatherings, or family reunions beneath crystal chandeliers in ornate ballrooms. The River Queen similarly dazzles with decadent decor yet retains its 1888 historic ambiance throughout intimate lounges and dining spaces. Perfect for proposal dinners or simply toasting your anniversary against a romantic sunset over the Mississippi.
Many lines also offer indulgent dinner jazz cruises, allowing you to soak up New Orleans’ glittering city lights and cultural melodies while savoring Cajun and Creole flavors. On the Steamboat Natchez, dine on NOLA favorites like shrimp etouffee and bread pudding while a Dixieland jazz ensemble fuels a rousing dance party. The New Orleans Paddlewheels riverboat features live jazz under the stars on its upper deck for a more intimate soirée. Pair Southern dishes like fried catfish with classic cocktails at candlelit tables before dancing the night away.
For a budget-friendly daytime ride, opt for Gray Line Tours’ historic paddlewheel cruise. This 2-hour round trip cruise includes fascinating narration on New Orleans’ riverfront landmarks like Jackson Square and the French Quarter. Complimentary soft drinks and snacks let you relish views of passing plantations and modern bridges crossing one of the world’s longest rivers flowing 1,125 miles south from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico.